The 2020/21 Guinness Pro14 season gets underway on Friday night with Cardiff Blues travelling to Parma to face Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, kick-off 6pm.
It’s been just five weeks since the 2019/20 campaign came to an end in a truncated fashion for John Mulvihill’s men with back-to-back derbies against the Scarlets and Ospreys, as we finished sixth in Conference B with a record of seven wins and eight losses from his 15 games.
All-in-all it was an inconsistent season, and that once again is the message coming out of the temporary training base at Pentwyn, to ensure we remain consistent in everything that is done both on and off the field.
That starts on Friday against a side who we have beaten five times in our last six encounters, including the most recent meeting back in November 2018 when Cardiff Blues came out convincing 37-0 winners at the Arms Park in Gethin Jenkins’ final game before retirement.
However, the last trip to the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi ended in disappointment in one of Mulvihill’s first games as Head Coach, with Zebre winning 26-24 thanks to a last minute Oliviero Fabiani try despite Cardiff Blues going 21-0 inside the first quarter of the match.
Michael Bradley’s side had another tough season in 2019/20, earning just three wins and a draw from their 15 games, although they did finish above the Ospreys, off the bottom of a full league or conference table for the first time in four years.
In August’s games they played home and away against Italian rivals Benetton, winning 13-17 in Treviso before a 9-16 defeat the following week in Parma.
There hasn’t been a huge amount of squad changes at Zebre over the summer, with signings being limited to six players from the Italian Top12 domestic league, while Edoardo Padovani headed for Benetton and experienced Italian international second row George Biagi retired.
They do have a new kid on the block though as former Italy U20 winger Federico Mori starts for just the second time in the Pro14, with plenty of excitement about his potential. He joins an experienced backline with Italian internationals Marcello Violi, Carlo Canna, Tommaso Boni and Giulio Bisegni forming the three-quarters, while Mattia Bellini is on the opposite wing.
There’s also an intriguing back row matchup with three more Italian internationals in the form of Maxime Mbanda, Johann Meyer and Jimmy Tuivaiti lining up for home side, but they go inexperienced up front with Daniele Rimpelli and Eduardo Bello packing down at prop aged 23 and 24, with internationals Danilo Fishcetti and Giosue Zilocchi backing them up from the bench.
Zebre: Junior Laloifi, Federico Mori, Giulio Bisegni, Tommaso Boni, Mattia Bellini, Carlo Canna, Marcello Violo; Daniele Rimpelli, Oliviero Fabiani, Eduardo Bello, Mike Kearney, Leonard Krumov, Maxime Mbanda, Johan Meyer, Jimmy Tuivati
Replacements: Massimo Ceciliani, Danilo Fischetti, Giosue Zilocchi, Cristian Stoian, Lorenzo Masselli, Gugliemo Palazzani, Antonio Rizzi and Jacopo Trulla
John Mulvihill largely keeps faith with the Cardiff Blues pack that beat the Ospreys at Rodney Parade back in August, with the only change seeing Cory Hill come in to replace Josh Navidi, who misses out with concussion. Hill captains the side as Josh Turnbull drops back to number eight.
In the backs Jarrod Evans returns at fly-half, while the big news is the selection of Willis Halaholo at inside centre who is fit again after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last November. He teams up with his old mate Rey Lee-Lo, with Hallam Amos being selected on the wing alongside Josh Adams and Matthew Morgan in the back three.
There is a high quality replacement front row, with Wales internationals Rhys Carre and Dillon Lewis backing up the props, while Ben Murphy is in line for just a fourth Pro14 game to cover the second rows. Olly Robinson is the back row cover, while Garyn Smith is rewarded for his impressive form in August with a spot on the bench.
Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan, Josh Adams, Rey Lee-Lo, Willis Halaholo, Hallam Amos, Jarrod Evans, Lloyd Williams; Corey Domachowski, Liam Belcher, Dmitri Arhip, Seb Davies, Cory Hill (c), Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Josh Turnbull
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhys Carré, Dillon Lewis, Ben Murphy, Olly Robinson, Lewis Jones, Jason Tovey, Garyn Smith
With the weather in Parma looking a bit wet for Friday evening, keeping mistakes to a minimum will be a key, especially through the midfield where Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo haven’t played for a number of months and will undoubtedly have some rust to shake off.
Zebre will look to play a fast and unstructured attacking game, based off a strong pack with a real weapon of a driving maul, if Cardiff Blues remain disciplined in defence and get through phases quickly in attack then there’s a great chance to get off to a winning start.
A strong opening to the season will be key for John Mulvihill’s men if we are to improve as a club, and there’s no better opportunity than beating Zebre in round one ahead of a big game against Connacht at Rodney Parade next week. Come on Cardiff!